Inventing “the Great Inventions”: China and the Early-Modern European Scientific Imagination

Prof.  Dongqing Wang2

2Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou, China

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the European debates over the origins of “the three greatest inventions” (gunpowder, the compass, and printing) seemed to define China as a pioneer in the march of global modernity. Proposed by some early Portuguese missionaries in Macau, the claim of Chinese priority concerning the modern inventions became well established through the circulation of geographies, travel writings, and sinological works in metropolitan Europe. However, such recognition of Chinese technological progress failed to alter the Eurocentric perception of Chinese sciences in general. The eighteenth-century European observers of China, including Daniel Defoe and Voltaire alike, commonly criticized the crudeness and backwardness of Chinese sciences. Focusing on China’s paradoxical role in early modern Europe’s scientific imagination, this essay investigates how national and cultural identities shaped an emergent narrative of global modernity by rewriting the concepts of “invention,” “discovery,” and “sciences.” I argue that, as a product of Orientalist fantasy, the discourse of the Chinese inventions has contributed to the invention of European modernity on the one hand, and the Chinese national identity on the other.


Wang Dongqing is Associate Professor of English at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies (Guangzhou, China). He was a visiting scholar in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2018-2019). He received his Ph.D. from the English Department at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests focus on the Sino-British cultural interactions during the long nineteenth century. His current research project examines the paradoxical role of British Orientalism in making China’s revolutionary modernity.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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